“Israel has the right to defend itself.” I never thought I would read those words offered by a United States Senator as a clever foil to question the wisdom of America’s support for Israel. But that is precisely how Vermont’s Bernie Sanders recently employed them.
In his New York Times essay, “The U.S. Must Stop Being an Apologist for the Netanyahu Government,” Senator Sanders challenged the Biden Administration to prioritize Palestinian human rights and Israeli human rights equally — which of course it should. Then, to advance his point, he argued that the Netanyahu government thrives in symbiosis with ethnonationalists much as America’s last Administration did — which it does — and has never fully embraced the vision of a viable Palestinian state nor invested itself in the process of compromise necessary to bring one about — which it hasn’t. And he added, correctly, that we shouldn’t be naïve to Hamas’s interests in this conflict: Hamas jumped at the threatened eviction of Palestinian families in Sheikh Jarrah and clashes between Israelis and Palestinians on the Temple Mount as an opportunity to advance its standing among Palestinians and seek freedom-fighter status in the eyes of the world, all while furthering a terrorist agenda as menacing to the prospects of a Palestinian state as it is to the safety of the Jewish one. He even went on to recognize the corruption and weak leadership of Fatah as contributing factors in the current conflagration.
These are truths that must be acknowledged, even the tough ones Israel’s supporters don’t want to admit. But when Senator Sanders concludes from them that Israel should be held accountable for the failure to advance the cause of peace, and punished with the threat of withheld American aid, he sets truth and history to the side. Does Senator Sanders not recall how Israel unilaterally withdrew from Gaza only to find Hamas transform it into a launching pad for rocket attacks? And does he not know that without American aid Israel would not have had the Iron Dome defense shield to protect its citizens against those attacks, which numbered three thousand in the last week alone? And does he not realize that to liken the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to such critical social justice causes as ending police violence against unarmed African Americans casts Israelis unambiguously as the aggressors and the Palestinians as the victims? We in the Jewish community have witnessed how such false equivalencies have resulted in increased expressions of anti-Semitism.
For a lie to be believed it must be clothed in truth. Deliberately or not, Senator Sanders has leveraged the truth to misrepresent the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as one Israel can solve on its own, and in so doing jeopardizes America’s support for Israel. Yes, the United States should be an “evenhanded” broker as the Senator insists, but the peace for which Israelis, Palestinians and all of us yearn will only be reached through a clearer-eyed understanding, or at least a more honest depiction, of the conflict than Senator Sanders offers.